By Maria Roca Lizarazu, NUI Galway

Since the publication of Family Frames in 1997,[1] Marianne Hirsch’s notion of postmemory has become one of the leading concepts in scholarship on belated, indirect, and non-experiential responses to a range of traumas.[2] Hirsch initially coined the term postmemory to describe the ways in which the children of Holocaust survivors relate to and are shaped by their parents’ past. She defines postmemory as “the experience of those who grow up dominated by narratives that preceded their birth, whose own belated stories are evacuated by the stories of the previous generation shaped by traumatic events that can be neither understood nor recreated.”[3] The children (and grandchildren) of Holocaust survivors have not personally experienced the powerful events of the past, which is why they cannot remember them in the literal sense; instead, they have a “postmemory,” which is “mediated not through recollection but through an imaginative investment and creation.”[4] What the subsequent generations cannot possibly remember, they must imagine or invent, which puts questions of fictionalisation, re-creation and mediation at the centre of Hirsch’s work.

Over the years, Hirsch has gradually expanded the circle of those who can have a postmemorial response to a traumatic past. Apart from including the second as well as the third generation of Holocaust survivors, a postmemorial relation can also be formed by those who are not biologically related to the survivor generation, but connect to the Holocaust via “affiliative,” i.e. culturally mediated, channels. This has led to an expansion (and some would say depletion) of the term in Hirsch’s own work and other scholarship on the matter. Postmemory now encompasses a range of belated responses to all sorts of traumas that are no longer restricted to the Holocaust, and has been applied to various experiences of dictatorship across Europe and beyond, as well as to instances of genocide across the globe.

Hirsch’s introduction of the term “affiliative” postmemory can be read as a response to major shifts in Holocaust discourse, which include the end of biological modes of memory transfer as well as the increasing transnationalisation of Holocaust memories. The idea (and foregrounding) of affiliation was thus meant to ensure the survival of the family-centered idea of postmemory in a changed landscape of Holocaust remembrance. It remains debatable, however, whether “affiliative” postmemory manages to move beyond some of the biologising, ethnicising and psychologising implications of Hirsch’s concept and truly breaks with the family frame. It also does not do away with the issue that subsequent generations are ultimately imagined as passive recipients of historical traumas and contagious affect. Despite its continuing popularity, Hirsch’s concept has therefore been critically expanded in recent years, in an attempt to supplement what Leslie Morris refers to as the “exhausted tropes of testimony, witnessing, belatedness, trauma, postmemory”.[5] Alison Landsberg, for example, has introduced the concept of “prosthetic memory”,[6] which stresses the culturally conditioned and (mass-)mediated nature of our relationship with past traumas. Her concept, however, is also underpinned by psychologising assumptions that frame audiences as passive recipients of contagious affect.

The most convincing recent attempt, in my view, to expand the frame of postmemory and leave behind its psychologising implications has been offered by Michael Rothberg. His notion of “implication” seeks to capture how we are entangled in and relate to instances of violence and injustice (such as slavery, colonialism and racism) that we are not connected to biologically, ethnically or even culturally, due to historical or geographical distance.[7] Understood as “those discomfiting forms of belonging to a context of injustice that cannot be grasped immediately or directly because they seem to involve spatial, temporal, or social distances or complex causal mechanisms”,[8] Rothberg’s concept helps to expand postmemory-scholarship in three important ways: 1. It truly moves beyond the biologistic frame of family and (trans-)generational memories, by no longer foregrounding the “continuities of genealogy or the intimacies of the family”.[9] Instead “implication” approaches the afterlives of large-scale violence from a structural perspective, asking how we are all implicated in “manifold indirect, structural, and collective forms of agency that enable injury, exploitation, and domination” ;[10] 2. By focusing on social, cultural and political aftereffects of violence across more expansive temporal and geographical scales, “implication” is more suited than postmemory to tackle the complex intersections of various historical and present-day injustices across a range of cultural contexts (this connects to Rothberg’s work on “multidirectional memory”);[11] 3. More so than Hirsch’s concept “implication” opens scholarly enquiry to the important question of futurity: if the focus is on the structural conditions that allow certain forms of violence to be (re-)produced over and over again, this also raises the issue of how we can bring about a different, less violent future.

[Adapted from Maria Roca Lizarazu, Renegotiating Postmemory. The Holocaust in Contemporary German-Language Jewish Literature (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2020)]

[1] Marianne Hirsch, Family Frames. Photography, Narrative, and Postmemory (Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press, 1997).

[2] Hirsch’s output on the issue of postmemory is considerable and spans a period of over 20 years; some of her most important works include Marianne Hirsch, Family Frames; Marianne Hirsch, ‘The Generation of Postmemory’, Poetics Today 29.1 (2008), pp. 103-128; Marianne Hirsch, The Generation of Postmemory. Writing and Visual Culture After the Holocaust (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2012); Marianne Hirsch, ‘Connective Arts of Postmemory’, Analecta Política 9 (2019), pp. 171-176.

[3] Marianne Hirsch, Family Frames, p. 22.

[4] Ibid., p. 22.

[5] Leslie Morris, The Translated Jew. German Jewish Culture Outside the Margins (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2018), p. 69.

[6] Landsberg, Alison. Prosthetic Memory. The Transformation of American Remembrance in the Age of Mass Culture (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2004).

[7] Michael Rothberg, The Implicated Subject. Beyond Victims and Perpetrators (Standford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2019).

[8] Ibid., p. 8.

[9] Ibid., p. 80.

[10] Ibid., p. 1.

[11] Michael Rothberg, Multidirectional Memory. Remembering the Holocaust in the Age of Decolonization (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2009).

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